The talk of Washington, DC for the last twenty-four hours has been the sensational piece by The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg, which pronounces, “The Crisis in U.S.-Israel Relations is Officially Here.” The title may have been true when Goldberg’s piece appeared; it’s definitely true now, as its impact has been felt far and wide.
Goldberg, a supporter of Israel who has asked important questions about that country’s policies, got several White House officials to share their disgust and contempt for the Israelis, especially Prime Minister Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, who clearly is the bête noire of the West Wing. Among the insults shared with Goldberg include the view that Bibi is many bad things, as the piece notes:
Over the years, Obama administration officials have described Netanyahu to me as recalcitrant, myopic, reactionary, obtuse, blustering, pompous, and “Aspergery.” (These are verbatim descriptions; I keep a running list.) But I had not previously heard Netanyahu described as a “chickenshit.”
That’s right, a “senior administration official” said that. Which, if you understand DC journalist-speak, leaves a short list of suspects. In diplomatic terms, this is the equivalent of giving a wedgie to a close ally, and is conduct beneath banana republics, much less a great power. But this is exactly the sort of petulant, faux-macho acting out I’ve come to expect from Obama’s profoundly dysfunctional National Security Council.
The irony here is that I’m anything but an uncritical supporter of Israel, and I’ve been sharply critical of Netanyahu, whose policies seem to be leading Israel down a dangerous road in the long run. On settlements, Bibi is playing with fire. Moreover, Netanyahu indeed has acted out against the Obama administration. But, instead of dealing with that in a constructive fashion — tough diplomacy, back-channel wrangling — we get “chickenshit.”
There’s no small irony there since Bibi, whatever his many shortcomings — I would include short-term thinking, cynicism, and sometimes outright mendacity — is anything but a chickenshit, having served as a decorated officer with Sayeret Mat’kal, Israel’s top special operations unit, equivalent to Delta Force or Seal Team Six. Bizarrely, White House officials signaled to Goldberg that they think Bibi is basically a wimp, all talk and no action, who’s afraid to actually bomb Iran. Why on earth the White House wants that message out there, in the middle of negotiations with Tehran, I simply cannot fathom.
Predictably, this juvenile West Wing outburst has had exactly the opposite effect the administration wanted, as it has bolstered Bibi at home as someone who stands up to Obama, who is frankly hated by a majority of Israelis. As explained by Naftali Bennett, Israel’s economy minister and a rising star on the Right, this outburst is “an insult not just to [Netanyahu] but to the millions of Israeli citizens and Jews across the globe.” Now Bibi can wait out the Obama administration on settlements and look like a national hero, rather than an obstructionist, by doing so.
The worst aspect of ChickenshitGate is how it confirms the belief, held by many on the Right, that Obama likes to kiss our enemies while kicking our friends. It is surely notable that we have not heard similar derogatory language said to reporters about our actual enemies. Moreover, dropping this needless error shortly before midterm elections that Democrats are already facing with trepidation is nothing short of inexplicable. But I find an increasing number of decisions made by the Obama White House fall short of basic political sense and logic. Obama’s is far from the first U.S. administration to find dealings with the Israelis exasperating, but it is the first to tell the media that Israel’s leader is a “chickenshit.” This is one for the history books.
Precedents for this sort of public badmouthing of close allies are hard to find. A certain parallel can be found in the bad feelings between President Richard Nixon and Canada’s Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, between whom there was little love lost. The differed on ideology plus lots of hot-button issues like U.S. draft-dodgers in Canada and knotty trade problems. In 1971, in exasperation, Nixon referred to the leader of our closest ally as “an asshole,” “pompous egghead” and “a son of a bitch.” Please note these were private utterances, not within earshot of any media. But Trudeau was a political pro, and sometimes a class act, and when he learned of this, he explained, “I’ve been called worse things by better people,” and the leaders patched up their differences.
The Obama administration at a high level lacks the restraint to keep their anger at allies to themselves, neither do I expect Netanyahu to show the magnanimous spirit that Trudeau did. Given the extent of the crisis unfolding across the Middle East, between Syria, Iraq, and turmoil of many kinds, to say nothing of the open intelligence alliance just inked between Moscow and Tehran, it would be good for America and Israel to patch up their differences as soon as possible. ChickenshitGate will make that more difficult, needlessly. For a White House that claims its foreign policy doctrine amounts to “don’t do stupid shit,” this is worse than a disappointment.